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13 Jun

Yeats on Swift and Liberty

What was this liberty…served through all his life with so much eloquence? ‘I should think,’ he wrote in the Discourse, ‘that the saying, vox populi, vox dei ought to be understood of the universal bent and current of a people, not of the bare majority of a few representatives, which is often procured by little arts, and great industry and application; wherein those who engage in the pursuits of malice and revenge are much more sedulous than such as would prevent them.’ That vox populi or ‘bent and current,’ or what we even more vaguely call national spirit, was the sole theme of his Drapier Letters; its right to express itself as it would through such men as had won or inherited general consent. I doubt if a mind so contemptuous of average men thought…that it found expression also through individual lives, or asked more for those lives than protection from the most obvious evils.

Yeats on Swift (specifically his favourite tract of Swift’s, the Discourse of the Contests and Dissentions…in Athens and Rome) in Wheels and Butterflies (London, 1934), pp. 23-24

The quote was included in W. B. Yeats, Jonathan Swift, and Liberty, which links Swift and Yeats in their fight for a particular vision of liberty, coupled with elitism:
“He knew that the Irish intellect must continue the fight that Swift had led in Ireland against those perpetuations of seventeenth-century materialism–optimism, faith in utopian schemes, trust in democracy–that lay behind the new pious legislation and hedged about modern life. Outside of Ireland he had been accustomed to the extreme opinions of youth, often outrageous and contrary to his own opinions. But not in Ireland. Therefore Yeats felt mightly obliged to be the Swift of his day and outrage youth itself.”

Yeats’ version of Swift’s epitaph pares the original down to liberty and indignation:

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his Breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-Besotted Traveler; he
Served human liberty.

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